Archive for January, 2012

1:5 The Climax of the D’Anconias, “Enter the Charming Rogue”

PREVIOUSLY: Socialism is on the rise in America thanks to Jim Taggart and Orren Boyle. It’s on the rise in Mexico too but that isn’t working out as well for them. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden have joined capitalist forces, by which I mean they are DTF. Alas, Hank is married.

Eddie Willers is reading the news. Turns out since nationalizing the D’Anconia copper mines, the Mexican government has discovered they are completely empty. Always were, in fact. The whole undertaking was either a huge blunder or a scam. Mexico is pissed.

When Eddie informs Dagny of this curious development she storms right over to Francisco D’Anconia’s hotel room to demand an explanation. But on the way she reminisces about her childhood again. For 25 pages. Fuck’s sake. Ladies and gentlemen, the bittersweet love story of Dagny and Fransisco:

Sebastian D’Anconia

The D’Anconia clan had been loaded for hundreds of years, ever since Sebastian D’Anconia (or Sebby Danks as the Pope called him) abandoned an earlier, even older fortune in the Old World to build one from scratch in the New World, thereby fulfilling the requisite ‘self-made man’ portion of his legend.

The family tree was forever after an unbroken chain of first-born sons, each more successful and charismatic than the last. All the women fertilized by D’Anconia seed developed temporary psychic powers like John Travolta in Phenomenon until their superhuman progeny kickboxed their way out of the womb. Francisco, current heir to the line and best human ever, didn’t just learn pre-natal kickboxing; he knew Krav Maga.

Every summer growing up, “Frisco” and his family spent a month on the Taggart Estate with L’il Dagny and L’il Eddie. He would opine about how awesome it was they were rich and perform amazing feats of stamina and intellect while Dagny and Eddie fawned over him. They all ignored L’il Jimmy for being a dweeb. Jim would try to ruin their fun out of jealousy from time to time, but spent most of his days pouring gasoline on stray cats or whatever. Nothing’s changed.

By the time they were 16 Dagny and Francisco had developed a very Dawson/Joey vibe. Sadly the precocious Frankie was off to college, as was dastardly Jim. When the two boys came back for break, Jim had fancy new ideas to back up his irrational hatred of the cool kids.
‘Forget your selfish greed and give some thought to your social responsibilities,’ he lectured Francisco. ‘The person who doesn’t realize this is the most depraved type of human being.’ For his part, Frisco told Dagny when they were alone that the most depraved human being was ‘the man without a purpose.’ Hint hint, Jim.
Together Dags and Frankie lamented the shitty aimlessness of the average person. She teased him with a joke about playing dumb to be popular. He backhanded her across the face for her insolence. Ah, young love. But it’s okay, because Dagny got off on it. She’s into the kinky shit. Yes it will come up again.

The next year Dagny started work at the railroad. Frisco surprised her at the station one night to walk her home. As soon as they were alone on the wooded path he pulled her in for a kiss and took her virginity right there on the grass. For a first time it was pretty hot. Dagny’s internal monologue was literally ‘Don’t ask me for it — oh don’t ask me — do it!’ And he did.

“Grease Lightning” being one of their favorite positions.

Then they fucked all summer, obviously. It was, like, a LOT of fun. Quoth the narrator, ‘they were both incapable of the conception that joy is sin.’ And for several years, even after Frisco graduated and began taking over parts of the family business, they stayed true across the distance, making passionate gymnastic love all night with the lights on whenever their paths should cross.

But present-day Dagny, who I promise is almost at the hotel, remembers the last time she visited him at this same location…

It was ten years ago, after Frankie’s father had passed, and Frisco was clearly keeping something from her but wouldn’t say what. He asked if she would abandon the railroad if he asked her to, which pissed her off. Then after dinner and what would turn out to be their last hook-up, she woke in the middle of the night to find him having a totally out-of-character nervous breakdown.

Dagny cradled him between her breasts as he babbled about how he had to ‘give it all up,’ how ‘it’s so hard to do’ but he ‘can’t refuse,’ how he couldn’t explain it to her because she was ‘not ready to hear it.’ He finally calmed down and in the morning he was in control again, relieved but still not talking.

He warned Dagny that he was going to change soon and she wouldn’t like it. It would hurt her, so he wanted her to know that he had his reasons. But after that night, she didn’t hear from him again.

For a decade there were only the stories in the papers about the insanely decadent parties he would throw all over the world. He left actual business to other people, even though his acumen remained — occasionally he would take over some sector or other just to amuse himself. Dagny was crushed. The worst part wasn’t the sense of betrayal; it was that there was clearly more to the story but he wouldn’t just level with her and say “Dagny, I’m Batman.”

Yet here she is, ten years later, at the same hotel (finally!), the scene of the crime, and as soon as she walks into the suite the old dynamic kicks in. He’s obviously missed her terribly and she’s calling him “Frisco” despite herself. Nonetheless she accuses him of intentionally creating the mining bubble.

He teasingly says maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just made a mistake. Dagny doesn’t believe it for a second. “Was it really worth losing millions just to see my brother shit a brick?” she asks. “Well that was pretty funny,” Frisco deflects.

“Babe, trust me, I am making very healthy lifestyle choices.”

Dagny is at a loss and wistfully reminds him of the times when they used to lie together listening to Richard Halley songs. That throws him off his game so he cracks more jokes about how he ruined the GDP of most of North America.

“Your brother and Orren Boyle’s investments? The Mexican government, plotting to take the mines over? They all wanted to get rich by relying on my work, doing nothing themselves. They were counting on one thing — that I wasn’t like them. But now their plans are ruined, because it turns out I’m just like them: a useless exec who doesn’t want to work! Come on, Dags. Why so serious?”

“Because you aren’t like them! Why do you act like you are? You did this on purpose.”

“It wouldn’t matter if I did, the end result is the same. Associated Steel, Taggart Transcontinental, and South America’s centralized economies are out millions, billions of dollars. The money that your brother and his kind craved so badly but didn’t want to earn turns out never to have existed at all. Oops! At least some of us can laugh about it.”

Dagny feels sick. Saying his purpose didn’t matter? Playing dumb to fit in? Reveling in failure? This isn’t the Francisco she knew! One last try: “Francisco, are you Batman why??”

Just like ten years before, he tells her she isn’t ready to hear it. So with nothing left to do but briefly acknowledge their mutual longing and frustration, Dagny departs. To her receding form Frisco calls, “You will be ready, Dagny. Some day. Some day hundreds of pages from now.” Jesus Ayn, get a goddamn editor.

NEXT: Chapter 6, The Non-Commercial, “Everybody Loves a Party”

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Applied Randology #1: Hayek Anxiety

The 2012 election is heating up, so it’s time to start applying this book club to real life. Today, even though I vote Democrat, I’m going to explain how conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.

Disclaimer: I’m not formally versed in economics, I just read this book recently. But if you are so versed, and want to school me in the comments, by all means. And if you aren’t and things get confusing, read yesterday’s primer on Keynes & Hayek for context.

Alan Greenspan

To get a sense of the strange ways Ayn Rand has impacted American politics, look no further than the arguments between Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul during Congressional oversight hearings, excerpted in Paul’s book End the Fed.  Greenspan was a member of the inner circle that workshopped drafts of Atlas Shrugged with Rand herself. Paul named his son Rand. Yet despite their shared philosophical background, they are completely at odds over the economy.

Greenspan, of course, ran the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, and Ron Paul hates the Fed. A lot. During the GOP debate on 1/23, he spoke about how the government doesn’t manipulate the economy through price and wage controls (aside from a minimum wage, I suppose), but it does manipulate the economy by controlling interest rates and money supply. That’s the Fed. Paul’s economics are pure Hayek, so he thinks we shouldn’t do that. Peg the value of the dollar to gold and leave the economy alone. After all, since capitalism is undeniably the most efficient system for creating vast amounts of wealth, we should want the market to be as free as possible.

Being richer than your parents: The Everywhere-but-America-n Dream

Income Growth in America, 1979-2005

But some people aren’t so sure the wealth capitalism generates will automatically get distributed on the merits, and the libertarian vision is completely neutral to outcomes. Increasing income inequality and declining social mobility are only the technical terms for, I don’t know, the Death of the American Dream, but to a pure libertarian the American Dream was only possible thanks to the nation’s laissez faire roots, so as long as the system goes back to that model the socioeconomic outcomes will be right by definition, no matter what they are.

America's Lovable Crackpot Grandpa

Which means if Ron Paul became president and had a Tea Party congress to back him up in liquidating the national debt and dismantling the Fed, the global economy would undergo a severe contraction, but that would just prove the whole arrangement was built on an illusion in the first place and any terrible consequences caused by ending it would be necessary adjustments to get back on a sustainable track. From the perspective of the people in this hypothetical whose lives were okay until Ron Paul’s policies rocked the world, this logic seems obviously insane.

Despite that, Ron Paul is vital to national politics because of his extreme ideological purity. People criticize the Republican party for prizing ideological purity over all else, but the real problem is that mainstream Republican ideology is not pure, it’s a sick, self-contradictory mess. Ron Paul’s system of belief is internally coherent even if it’s externally problematic: he has integrity.

For example, Ron Paul’s policies for restoring American prosperity are not aimed at lowering unemployment, because under pure Hayekian liberty the unemployment rate at any given moment always reflects the best the economy can do; anything better is just a bubble waiting to burst. Can’t find work? Tough shit. Put down the bong and learn how to compete for the jobs that actually exist, or prove your ideas are valuable in the free market and create some jobs yourself. That part sounds Republican enough.

Yet in the same debate where Paul talked monetary policy, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were in a rhetorical arms race over who could create more jobs by cutting Mitt Romney’s taxes from 15% to zero. That isn’t honest Hayekian politics, it’s pandering. The rich donor class likes the tax cuts, the struggling masses in the voting class like hearing ‘job creation.’ But cutting taxes to promote job creation is actually Keynesian.

Professional Bullshit Artists

After all, insofar as people spend their untaxed money it will stimulate demand, which will boost the economy and thus, eventually, employment and tax revenues. JFK did this. Granted, those were demand-side “trickle-up” cuts, not supply-side “trickle-down” cuts. But either way the law of diminishing returns applies. Cut taxes too much and the growth won’t produce more tax revenues on the other end. It becomes fiscally irresponsible.

The key to all of Keynes’ ideas is that they’re cyclical guidelines, not hard and fast rules. The economy crashed? Cut taxes and spend money until it fuels a positive feedback loop. But once the loop is running, STOP. If the economy is booming, raise taxes and save a budget surplus. That way, next time the economy hits a negative feedback loop, we can cut taxes and fund public works out of the surplus and not rack up such a big deficit. Fiscal responsibility! Conservative and liberal policies are both right, they just need to take turns.

Now, Keynesian spending can be a problem — flood the economic engine with too much money and it stalls out (stagflation). Or even worse (and this was Hayek’s fear), it can make the up and down swings sharper instead of smoother. Like, say, if you give tax deductions and tax dollars to home-owners who can’t afford a mortgage, that creates a bubble. Or if you give out massive tax cuts during a boom, that explodes the deficit. But neither Barney Frank nor George Bush was masterminding an evil conspiracy. They don’t even like each other. It’s just the same mechanism at play as in lobbying: systemic corruption without widespread individual corruption.

So clearly politics gums up the Keynesian On/Off switch. Once politicians hand out Keynesian dollars, it’s very hard to stop. They’d lose votes! What if the business cycle slumps when they’re up for re-election? They’ll overuse Keynesian tools to stay in office! Indeed, this is part of why our tax code is a mess of deductions. Look no further than President Obama’s well-received State of the Union Speech. Great speech; I liked it. But it involved a lot more tax complicating than tax simplifying.

Chemo treats cancer, but it also makes you sick.

Once Keynesian spending becomes never-ending and aimed towards specific interest groups by career politicians, it actually could trigger Hayek’s Road to Serfdom feedback loop. But as we see today, private enterprise is part of that. It’s the corporatist-lobbyist-politician loop. George Orwell himself pointed out in his review of Hayek’s Road that the people are right to fear corporate serfdom as well as state serfdom. Fascism is both, after all. It’s a balancing act.

Hayek actually considered himself a liberal, but in classical terms, where it’s defined by economic liberty and only out of that can social liberty grow. He said of conservatives that they are only as good as what they’re conserving. Today’s Republican policies would conserve deficit-expanding tax cuts and a 70-year bipartisan tradition of endless deficit spending on the military-industrial complex. If Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a vision of a bankrupt police state, the conservative party in America today is steering a course down that very road.

What then of the Democrats? They use the language of Ayn Rand’s villains, the language of social justice. And they’re part of the corporate-lobbyist-politician axis too. Yet neither group is full of secret nihilists; Rand is way too cynical there. Voters on both sides aspire to live by their principles and are maybe a little naive about policy, or like Rand’s heroes they simply can’t fathom their enemies or see their own flaws.

The reason I vote the Democratic side of the not-backed-by-gold coin is that the Democratic party’s parallels to the Randverse are straightforward and end there. Rand nails the naive self-defeating angle, and I get that. But that holds for the GOP too, and then on top of that the language of the Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting. It’s a Jim Taggart move if ever there was one. Except in our world it’s Rand’s language playing the role that social justice language plays in the Randverse. Ironic, idn’t it?

The Debt: Both parties, finally working together.

Standing in the middle of all this is Ron Paul again, who demonstrates both the incoherence of mainstream politics and the inability of a rigid ideology to solve the problem. He is anti-Keynes, so he’s in the party that calls itself anti-Keynes. But both parties use (and abuse) Keynesianism.

Basically Keynes is like a drug. Drugs can be medicine. They can be a social lubricant. But you need to use them in responsible moderation. Hayek doesn’t want us to overdose or drive drunk or end up broke and homeless (oops!). So credit where it’s due: Keynes is the most influential economist since Adam Smith, and not without reason. Hayek was an economist, sure, but his truly important legacy is his political philosophy, which warns us about the dangers of Keynes’ powerful insights.

And even Hayek cuts across today’s political lines. In his last major work, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek was as radically libertarian as ever. He suggested we should privatize pretty much everything. But he also said the state should enforce a universal health care mandate and guarantee unemployment insurance, even if private companies supply them. That way, maybe, even at the bottom of the business cycle, people wouldn’t be desperate enough to vote for a well-meaning party that would accidentally turn the country into a militarized police state. Maybe.

So yeah. Conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.

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Food for Thought #3: The Traffic Circle to Serfdom

Previously on Food for Thought, I took Atlas Shrugged out of its original context and put it in 21st century terms. Specifically, I described the book’s world in terms of modern pop culture by way of our greatest television dramas. Then I examined how the plot of Atlas isn’t just a powerful libertarian vision for conservatives; it’s a progressive tragedy for liberals too. This week I’m adding to the mix the economic debate over The Great Recession. It’s the reason I read this book in the first place in 2008, and it’s the reason our political battle lines in 2012 look so eerily like the Randverse.

Badass Motherfuckers (courtesy of netrightdaily.com)

The story of today’s economic debate doesn’t really start with mortgage-backed securities. It starts a hundred years ago with two economists whose views now symbolize the American left and right: J.M. Keynes (D-England) and F.A. Hayek (R-Austria). Most of this post will be sourced from this excellent book on them, but if you’re already familiar with these guys skip ahead to Hayek Anxiety

John Maynard Keynes was an economics prodigy during World War I who wrote a book calling bullshit on the Treaty of Versailles. He predicted that the brutal debts forced onto Germany would lead to socioeconomic collapse, radical politics, and some kind of nightmarish second World War. Aside from being 100% right, the book was a smash, making Keynes an intellectual celebrity for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Friedrich Hayek was a young scholar who saw Keynes’ predictions coming true first-hand and was in awe of his intellect. When the two met as adults, they had great respect for each other, even as their philosophies grew more and more opposed.

What was the root of that opposition? The Great Depression.

Keynes saw millions unemployed and all the shuttered factories and shops and thought it was ridiculous that these problems couldn’t simply solve each other. He figured if the government ran a deficit to fund projects like fixing and building roads, it would put idle people to work, which would give them money to spend, which would give businesses customers, which would allow businesses to start hiring again, which would get more people back to work earning more money to spend on more businesses. Unemployment drops, growth returns, the economic engine runs smoothly again — even better in fact, because it’s now running on shiny new roads that expand and integrate markets. And with things going strong, the government can pay back the deficit it incurred during the slump by using the bigger tax revenues created by the boom. Voila!

This is the reasoning behind the economic stimulus. Each step seems logical and the end result seems like a natural consequence of the steps. But try to pitch it in a sentence. Everybody’s short on cash? We can spend our way out of it! It sounds like a magic trick.

Too much like one, according to Hayek. Hayek was schooled in classical economics to consider things from the ground up. Keynes’ top-down view of the economy as one big machine seemed totally alien. In the classical view, prices mark a point of natural equilibrium that emerges from the chaos of every individual decision in the economy. Any attempt to manipulate the economy from the top down only disturbs that equilibrium. No matter how long you push it off, the day will come when everything (like, say, housing prices) inevitably crashes back to its natural state. In this view, the only appropriate response to a crash is to let the market shake itself free of the bad influence or you just set up the next crash.

Every time Keynes wrote a piece arguing for his crazy new ideas, Hayek was the guy who would write a response saying “Well I just did a ton of math about this and I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Keynes eventually got tired of that and spent a decade writing a book known as The General Theory in which he single-handedly invented the entire field of macroeconomics (which is now half of all economics) just to prove he was right. Needless to say Hayek didn’t get around to responding to that one directly. And besides, the American government under FDR was field-testing Keynes’ ideas in reality and liking the results. Case closed?

For the next forty years, Keynes’ model dominated policy in the Western world. But Hayek never gave up on his warnings. During the Keynes-predicted World War II, Hayek wrote a book called The Road to Serfdom that made a prediction of its own. “Hey, I’ve seen a government promise to save a radically depressed economy from the top-down before,” Hayek said. “It’s called Nazi Germany. Wake up people!”

Except the real point was that you don’t have to be evil Nazis to turn totalitarian (just as you don’t need corrupt congressmen to produce a corrupt congress). Once you start manipulating the economy at all, even for good reasons, you disturb the natural equilibrium, which causes new problems, which encourages you to meddle even more, causing more ripple effects, leading to more government intervention and on and on until one day you’ve saved the economy so many times you’ve turned into Soviet Russia by accident. The Road to Serfdom, it turns out, is paved with good intentions.

Unless you’re Ayn Rand, of course, who basically adopted Hayek’s thesis as the plot of Atlas Shrugged, but refused to grant good intentions to anyone except her protagonists, who hate good intentions and consider anyone who speaks in the language of good intentions to be an incomprehensible moral pervert. This is the part of Rand’s writing that is truly, utterly bizarre and let’s face it, morally perverse. Even libertarian bloggers acknowledge that there is literally no way to be more cynical than Rand is here. Already, long before we’ve reached the heavy, technical parts of her philosophy, we can tell something isn’t right, and here’s why:

In Food for Thought #1, I quoted Scott Tobias’ line that Atlas‘ ideas are hindered by its aesthetics. But it’s more accurate to say that Ayn Rand’s aesthetics hinder many of the ideas in Atlas (such as Hayek’s), and it is Rand’s ideas that hinder the aesthetics themselves. In About the Book I noted that Rand’s definition of art is ‘a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist’s metaphysical value judgments.’ She also says that the artist doesn’t have to make those judgments consciously; the art will still reflect them. So basically the qualities of one’s art are a natural outgrowth of one’s inner philosophy. And the qualities of Rand’s art are ugly. Ipso facto, her philosophy is ugly.

But does that mean it’s untrue? Or is it just pretty to think so?

Let’s refer back to the real world. In the 70s the economy sank into something called stagflation that didn’t fit Keynes’ model, and so conservative economists came back to power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who had both read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom political philosophy. After forty years of Keynes’ fans running the show, Hayek’s got their forty-year turn, and they too oversaw economic growth.

It wasn’t until 80 years after the Great Depression that had sparked the debate in the first place that the global economy suffered another epic collapse. And we should know, because we were there. Now conservatives claim the Keynesians set off a ticking time bomb between the 30s and the 60s. Liberals claim the Hayekians ruined a good thing through willful negligence from the 80s to the 00s. How can we know who’s right?

We’ll tackle that question head-on tomorrow when I take the Rand/Hayek worldview and apply it to the 2012 election, in the first post of a new series called “Applied Randology.” Bookmark the Club now and join in.

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1:4 The Immovable Movers, “Attack of the Strawmen”

PREVIOUSLY: Jim Taggart and Orren Boyle agreed to rig the economy, but didn’t say so out loud. Dagny and Eddie gazed forlornly into the middle distance.

Dagny has just returned from an engine factory, where the boss-man spewed bullshit at her for two hours about how his plant’s delays are definitely not his fault. As soon as she walks into her office Eddie tells her their best contractor has quit his job and disappeared, mysteriously, forever, just like that middle manager Kellogg. It’s almost as if something fishy is going on.

The bad news sends Dagny right back out of the office to walk her dismay off amid the Manhattan streets. But she only sees signs of a crass and hollow culture all around her. She hears someone playing music with ‘no melody, no harmony, no rhythm,’ so… not music, then. Or possibly not a sound at all. Anyway, ‘if music was emotion and emotion came from thought, then this was the scream of chaos,’ she reflects. And since she has already botched the definition of music, and the premise that emotion comes from thought is arguable at best, I think ‘the scream of chaos’  might be a misnomer in this case but probably describes someone’s art… Ayn.

No Central Park view? Dagny you’re practically a hobo. 

So our intrepid heroine wraps up this Travis Bickle homage and goes home to her high-rise apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows. She puts on a little Halley song and wonders why her favorite musician had to go and quit and disappear, mysteriously, forever, eight years ago. Jesus Dagny, put two and two together. Collapsing on the couch with a sigh, her eyes fall on a newspaper, and the face of that no-good lothario Francisco D’Anconia is staring at her from the front page. Turns out he’s in town. Dagny just cannot catch a break!

Dagny’s brother, meanwhile, is similarly forlorn in his apartment. Some high-society chippy in the Paris Hilton mold is brushing her teeth and picking her wedgies, prattling on from the bathroom while Jim just slumps over in a chair like a miserable prick. He hadn’t even wanted to fuck this girl, it just seemed like the thing to do, and now he feels crummy. She wants Jim to take her out for Armenian food like a gentleman, but he refuses because of a very important board meeting. And just then he gets a phone call from his panicked Mexican lobbyist. You’ll never believe this: they’ve nationalized the San Sebastian railroad and mines.

Now that this plot ‘twist’ has finally happened, the ‘action’ speeds up.

Board meeting! Jim assuages the directors’ fears. Don’t you know, he had the marvelous foresight to move all their resources out of Mexico and leave only one shitty old train running once a day. Definitely him. Not Dagny. And he will make sure a couple of underlings take the fall anyway. The board polishes their monocles and mumbles their relief.

Jim seems less confident when he retreats to his office to hang with Orren Boyle afterwards. Orren reassures him that Francisco D’Anconia has lost a cool $15 mil of his own money in this debacle, and therefore will help them find a way to recoup their losses too. But at that very moment Jim’s secretary comes in and informs them Francisco has refused to take their calls, and will never take them again, because he finds them boring. Frank, if you’re the first character with a sense of humor I think we’re gonna get along real well.

Next scene! The National Alliance of Railroads is voting on a measure that would create regional monopolies, ensuring national coverage in these times of energy shortfall. Just as Orren and Jim planned, Taggart Transcontinental will now have the Colorado oil fields all to itself. But nobody says that part out loud; they all vote yes out of peer pressure. Because it’s for the greater good, you see. Everybody immediately shuffles out in shame while Dan Conway, the man who ran the up-and-coming Phoenix Durango railroad in Colorado, is left alone, shocked that his life’s work has just been ruined by committee.

Next scene! Dagny’s working; Jim busts in to gloat. “Guess what, bitch? I just saved our business through sleazebag politicking. Who’s ya boss now?” Dagny is furious, but rather than give Jim the satisfaction, she up and leaves without a word.

Next scene! Dagny visits Conway to encourage him to reject the NAR’s ruling. He is totally disillusioned with humanity now and says he’s going to move to Arizona and go fishing. Good luck with that, buddy. It’s a desert. Dagny tells Conway how much she looked forward to kicking his ass in Colorado, but not like this. Never like this. He gives her a pitiful smile. “I know, Dags. I know.”

Next scene! Dagny hangs up her phone having just scheduled a meeting with Hank Rearden. Colorado oil magnate Ellis Wyatt busts into her office. “Listen, we have to work together now, even though this is bullshit, so I want you to know I don’t fuck around. And if you fuck around, I will fuck you up. You feel me?” Dagny really wants to tell him how much she hates this new arrangement too, but instead she goes “Yes, sir, I feel you,” so as not to make excuses.

Last scene! Dagny is having her meeting with Hank Rearden, in his personal office. She needs her Rearden Metal order expedited so it’ll be ready when the Phoenix shuts down. He tells her he’s gonna hose her on the price hike, which gets Dagny kinda hot. She says that’s fine because she knows he needs her to prove his new invention’s potential to the world, which gets Hank hot. They flirtatiously congratulate each other for being such good capitalists, then deride Dagny’s brother and his ilk as ‘demented’ ‘looters’ and ‘moochers.’

Mr. Rearden, your stock is rising.

To lift their spirits in the face of this dangerous industrial cartel, they stand by the window and watch Hank’s first batch of alloyed rails being loaded onto a Taggart train in the distance. Oh yeah Hank, you like putting the rails to that Taggart train all right. Don’t deny it.

I’m pretty sure that’s his internal monologue, but externally he just boasts about the endless uses of his Metal, including airplanes that are lighter by several orders of magnitude and infrastructure with triple the life span. Which of course means way less jet fuel and increased energy efficiency, but they certainly don’t say that part out loud because these two hate to think there might be social benefits to their entrepreneurial largesse.

Which puts our no-nonsense workaholic protagonists on the same page, the same line even, and the subject is down and dirty hardcore business talk. So in this moment their loins are inevitably a’quiver. Their eyes meet, and Dagny gets her handjob grip primed to go, but Hank blanches and guiltily calls the two of them selfish. He’s probably thinking he shouldn’t cheat on his castrating wife, and Dagny is put out that she won’t get to put out, but this meek version of Hank isn’t as hot anyway, so they just go back to staring out the window at the highly phallic railroad tracks that are, so far, the only fruits of their labor.

NEXT: Chapter 5, The Climax of the D’Anconias — Enter the Charming Rogue

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Food for Thought #2: Political (and Actual) Climate Change

Okay we are now three chapters deep in Atlas Shrugged and the plot skeleton has finally developed real meat on its bones, specifically in the bar scene with Jim Taggart and the other villains of the piece. On the surface it’s pretty dry stuff, flat even, but it’s meaty because this is where Rand starts making points that are, at least from today’s perspective, both conservative and liberal.

Right off the bat she illustrates what she learned in Russia about how leftist socioeconomic policy can ruin the competitiveness of the market. The Tea Party approves. But the context of this lesson, strictly speaking, is a cabal of established businessmen who instigate the government’s malfeasance by warping the law to their own desire. Occupy Wall Street approves too! The Randverse, it turns out, is not as partisan as conventional wisdom would have you believe. In fact, despite Rand’s heroic feats of oversimplification, her world is riddled with dilemmas. I’ve embellished the text in two places to accent this:

The bigger and more dramatic of the two updates is the nature of the energy crisis in the book (or, “in the book”). Ayn puts the phrase ‘natural exhaustion of the mines’ in the mouth of the evil Orren Boyle, while the valorous Ellis Wyatt has struck new oil through sheer force of will. So Rand sees the problem as a withering of human ambition and not a genuine environmental limitation or the cause of catastrophic climatic side effects. Granted, she was writing in 1957 and you can’t predict everything about the next half-century.

Up means good, right?

But if the energy crisis (“in the book”) is legitimate, the villains while still villainous are at least reacting to real threats, just poorly, and our two main protagonists, Dagny and Hank, are effectively the champions of 21st century progressive projects like high-speed rail and sustainable development. All this reorients the way Atlas maps onto our real-life politics in ways that are far more interesting than going by the author’s, you know, actual intentions, and as such this new paradigm will become increasingly important as we progress.

The second update I make is the substitution of the word ‘lobbyist’ for Rand’s phrase ‘men in Washington.’  Again, by Rand’s account, the catalyst for state interference here is a syndicate of elite market players who work with influence-peddlers like Wesley Mouch to protect themselves from market forces. The vast majority of Americans today recognize that as a real problem and see lobbyists as the poster boys for it.

Generally speaking, conservatives blame government bloat for our troubles, because bureaucracy is inefficient and creates opportunities for rent-seeking (political science for ‘bribes’). Unfettered business is the natural corollary to their desire to shrink the state. Liberals blame the concentration of power in the corporate class for our troubles, since this class can fetter business to its own ends through lobbying, as a sort of covert class war. The truth is that the distinction is akin to arguing over whether a coin is all heads or all tails.

But the reality of how we ended up this way is more complex than the Randverse can contain. To explain that reality in three paragraphs I’m going to draw heavily from Lawrence Lessig’s new book Republic Lost, which you should buy here for more info. Here it goes:


Over the last three decades, the cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed into a financial arms race. Candidates need either a personal fortune or corporate backing just to compete. The average member of Congress now spends 40-70% of her time raising money, and the more competitive her district is (that is to say, the more a vote actually counts), the more money she’ll need (so the money counts first). She also no doubt won office by championing a couple of high-profile issues that she genuinely cares about, but now she has hundreds of votes to make on a wide variety of issues about which she knows very little. With no time to study obscure technical matters, she needs help to know how to vote and why. That’s where the lobbyists come in.

They aren’t buying results per se. They’re providing congressmen who don’t have enough hours in the day with vital background on all sorts of wonky topics. Is the research in their reports slanted towards the interests they represent? Certainly. But that’s obvious and they naturally work with the congressmen who are already friendly to their interests due to a vague sense of shared values (just like how voters pick their congressmen!). In short, they provide what political scientists call a “legislative subsidy.” If, for example, you agree with this post so far but didn’t have the details to back up your opinion before, I’m providing you with an “argumentative subsidy.” That’s the value lobbyists ostensibly bring to the table, but in the case of governing it creates a vicious circle.

Not that representative.

The laws of the land end up de facto written by various lobbies in various uncoordinated bits and pieces, resulting in ever more technocratic votes that leave Congressmen relying ever more on lobbyists’ help. The tangle of statutes produced gets so convoluted that you need, say, a phalanx of lawyers to understand it. That creates a bias towards big companies, which creates barriers to entry for start-up businesses, stifling competition. In the end the established businesses have done right by their investors but wrong by the market as a whole. The congressmen have done right by their constituents, voting their values on the issues that defined their campaigns and sending pork projects back home to boost the local economy, but they’ve done wrong by the country and our Constitutional institutions as a whole. Everybody hates Congress but likes their Congressman.

Maybe you noticed what this perverse dynamic doesn’t require: explicit pay-offs or quid pro quos. The ways in which lobbyists introduce politicians to major donors definitely skirts that line, but everybody networks, right? Individually, everybody’s doing what you would do too. Considering the social structure of their day-to-day lives and the personal cost/benefit dynamic, everyone’s behavior is in their rational self-interest, and pretty normal. Even if no one is corrupt, everyone’s actions in the aggregate produce a corrupt society. How can that be? Everyone is satisfying their rational self-interest just like Rand wanted, with the end result being the societal decay that she feared. All the powerbrokers are getting what they need but not what they’ve earned, while the true innovators who could address real, impending, potentially apocalyptic issues like energy scarcity and climate change are tarred as controversial figures whose goals are obstructed by a dysfunctional civic culture. Hey wait, that’s the plot of the book!

So in Rand’s favor she gets the broad strokes of today’s problems right, but her personal life philosophy actually enables those problems. Rational self-interest, it turns out, will not suffice as an ethical standard of behavior unless the impact of the individual on his culture is part of what defines that rationality. Anything too selfish is corrosive to the climate, political or otherwise, and exposes ‘self-interest’ as having been defined too narrowly.

Yes, in the recaps I joke that Ayn has a thing for fascism when describing her heroes. But fascism is often described as collusion between big business and big government, and that’s exactly the state of affairs we live in she depicts as villainous. Likewise, if you read Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism, certain phrases about human values and the failures of egalitarian democracy seem straight out of Rand, even as the statist politics he promotes are the total opposite of her libertarian vision.

Dagny would be so disappointed.

By the same token I think updating Atlas to include modern lobbying and the climate & energy crises is actually true to the spirit of Rand’s work despite her political legacy because of the cognitive dissonance it provokes. Keep in mind that many of those who fund the most powerful lobbies and shower money on politicians preach Rand’s philosophy even as it condemns their behavior (Koch Brothers, I’m looking at you) — a self-contradiction in the very style of James Taggart.

And that makes Atlas Shrugged a self-fulfilling prophecy about a philosophy of self-fulfillment whose adherents are self-contradicting in direct contradiction of their self-styled philosophy causing the philosophy’s prophecy to become self-fulfilling.  Holy Meta!

Next week I’ll be following the Monday Chapter 4 recap with more Food for Thought on Wednesday. If you’re intrigued, please subscribe by e-mail or RSS at the bottom of the page, and if you like, get caught up on the reading.

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1:3 The Top and the Bottom cont’d, “In Which Everyone Is Sad”

PREVIOUSLY: The world is falling apart because fossil fuels are running out. James Taggart and Orren Boyle decide to save their respective businesses by buying the law lobbying Congress.

Dagny Taggart is alone in her office late at night. I think technically she’s working but internally she’s ruminating on her childhood. Even at 12 she was a total hard-ass, and she’s damn proud of it. She started working for the railroad at 16 in an entry-level position but quickly rose through the ranks because everyone else in the world sucks at their job.

Young Dagny

Her dear old dad was really proud of her and secretly wanted her to be the next company president (probably; he implied it on his deathbad, which, dude, if there was ever a time to get right to the point…). But after he died James, as the eldest son, became the controlling stockholder. His very first move was to build the Mexico line to those copper mines (in which he’s heavily invested), and when the board approved it Dagny almost quit. She got promoted to VP of Operations to keep her from jumping ship.

But Backstory Theater is over because here comes Jim now, shitting a brick over the fact that Dagny diverted all their resources away from Mexico and made him look like a real limpdick in front of his skeevy friends. Dagny is like “You’re goddamn right I did, that line is a huge sinkhole of money and it’s gonna get nationalized.” Ayn, hon, it’s not really foreshadowing when it’s this explicit.

Jim goes on another defensive rant about how it’s important to boost the Mexican economy and bring civilization to those sorry bastards. Real white man’s burden shit. Plus his men in Washington have subtly encouraged his Mexico plans and he wants more sweet, sweet tax breaks. Dagny couldn’t care less, so then Jim accuses her of disliking the plan just because she has beef with the guy who owns the copper mines, Francisco D’Anconia.

Francisco, you cad.

Backstory Theater returns as we learn that Dagny used to have a big fat crush on D’Anconia, in the days when he was a workaholic hard-ass just like her. But now that he’s inherited his family’s centuries-old copper fortune he mostly sleeps around and parties like Bruce Wayne without the secret identity. That we know of… (see, now that’s foreshadowing). Dagny was super-disappointed in him and they’ve been estranged ever since.

Jim sure knows how to push his sister’s buttons, specifically the one labeled “bottomless pit of loneliness,” and Dagny has had about enough. She tells him she’s keeping all their operations focused on renovating the Colorado line, the Mexican line can go fuck itself, and if he wants to change that he can sit down with the books and do the work himself. Which he will never do, obviously, so he storms off while impotently cursing her name.

After that kerfluffle Dagny needs to relax so she goes down to the Terminal floor, where there is a huge bronze statue of her grandfather Nat that always makes her feel better. Nat was a self-made man. He built the railroad entirely by himself with one hand tied behind his back. He married the prettiest Southern belle in all the Confederacy land — and once put her up as collateral for a loan. He shat oak trees and pissed gold bullion. Oh, and he murdered a state legislator for being a charlatan and a huckster, as an example to all the others. Because why not?

Police sketch of Nat Taggart

Her spirits bolstered by her imaginary memories of the 19th century when men were men and railroad magnates didn’t have to worry about things like criminal law, Dagny wanders over to a news stand to smoke a butt with her token blue-collar friend, the Friendly Shopkeep.

Friendly Shopkeep is a cigarette collector, but now that there are only like four tobacco companies left on earth his collecting days are over and he’s bummed out. Sounds like somebody’s concerned about big business ruining local mom-and-pop-style economies. How liberal.

Shopkeep goes on to say that the hustle and bustle in the terminal seems more lethargic these days and finishes by asking ‘Who is John Galt?’ with a shrug (get it?), and Dagny makes my week by flipping out about how everybody keeps saying that and it’s freakin’ meaningless and totally annoying. Shopkeep agrees with her, possibly just to calm her down, and they ruefully take a drag together.

Meanwhile, Eddie is still at work too, and taking a break too, and enjoying the company of his own socioeconomically inferior pal too. This pal is a grease monkey rail laborer who Eddie occasionally runs into in the building’s cafeteria. So they’re eating gruel or whatever and Eddie is going on about how all his hopes for the future lie with Dagny, who is just so inspiring to him. I bet he’s a total mama’s boy. With Oedipal issues.

Eddie’s anonymous proletarian friend agrees that Dagny is the bee’s knees and asks if she ever does anything to treat herself for all that hard work. Eddie is like, “No. Maybe sitting alone at night with a glass of wine listening to Halley’s (four, definitely not five) Concertos, and tending to her dozens and dozens of cats.”  I made that cat part up.

Shortly thereafter, an angsty acoustic rock song plays on the soundtrack as we watch a montage of Eddie and Dagny leaving work and wandering the streets back to their respective homes, lost in melancholy thoughts.

The voice of a generation.

Fade to commercial.

NEXT: Chapter 4, The Immovable Movers — Attack of the Strawmen

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1:3 The Top and The Bottom, “Not-So-Super Villains”

PREVIOUSLY: Hank Rearden is the metallurgical Steve Jobs of the Randverse, but his entire family blows chunks. Now buckle in, the plot is about to thicken:

James Taggart downs a stiff drink in a seedy dive bar. A dive bar on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. This is the most exclusive watering hole in the country, where power-brokers and economic elites go to relax among their own kind in the grungiest low-rent atmosphere imaginable. For that authentic, pre-Giuliani New York feel I guess? This is what it’ll be like when hipsters run the country.

So in this presumably smoke-filled room, Taggart is going round for round with his steel-industry friend Orren, and Larkin the Rearden family friend is there to schmooze with the big dogs. There’s also a fourth guy, Wesley Mouch, who keeps real quiet and watches everybody else converse like a real creeper.

The bar is this dark. Ayn is very specific about it.

“So about that steel you ordered,” Orren says to Jim, “You know how it is these days.” He blames his company’s failures on ‘circumstances absolutely beyond human control.’ Specifically, apparent global shortages of the raw materials of industrial production. The world has passed the point of peak oil, it seems (some more prophecy points there, kind of. Rand implies that “Drill Baby Drill” would be an effective solution, which… Ayn, you’re better than that). But it’s not just peak oil, it’s peak iron ore too. Peak you-name-it. That’s why Wyatt’s new oil fields in Colorado are such a big deal to everyone.

But I'm sure everything will be fine.

Jim assures Orren he doesn’t blame him. He blames Dagny, because she stirred up some shit with the board to void Orren’s contract and push her Rearden deal through. Which gets the two of them going about how much they hate Hank Rearden and his stupid Metal, which will obviously be unsafe and a huge disaster.

After all, it was totally irresponsible of Rearden to invest so much of his remaining ore  in R&D for what was at the time a purely hypothetical metal that would be faster and lighter than steel!  The selfish bastard just up and invents an energy-efficient solution to sustaining the modern industrial lifestyle in a world of declining fossil fuels? Suuuch a dick. Doesn’t he know how many companies he’ll run out of business? And he calls himself a job creator!

But back to Orren, who is currently pontificating about how he loves the free market and property rights, and to preserve them in this hostile climate they need to, you know, be socialized. But just a little bit!

Specifically, Orren thinks the government should centralize the ore supply and distribute it among the steel companies to prevent the industry from going under. Which, since Rearden has the largest private stockpile, would effectively mean confiscating the ingredients for the Rearden Metal  and handing them out to poorly managed old-money companies that are heavily invested in outdated technology. But they certainly don’t say that part out loud. They just talk about the need for ‘progressive social policy’ and how everybody has to do their part to make sure the world doesn’t go totally ass up.

Jim is more than happy to agree, and chips in his two cents while he’s at it. He has beef with a competing railroad, the Phoenix Durango, which is brand new but based in Colorado, and thus squeezing Taggart Transcontinental out of vital market share. Jim thinks it’s absurd for both the Phoenix and the Taggart lines to fight over one market when the declining economy has left whole regions without reliable rail service.

Society as a whole would be better off, Jim claims, if the remaining railroads carved out regional monopolies. Which, since he wants Colorado based on a right of ‘historical priority,’ would effectively mean handing all the oil contracts to Taggart while banishing the upstart Phoenix to an uninhabitable dust bowl somewhere. But they certainly don’t say that part out loud. Orren just nods at Jim’s socially conscious wisdom and says he’ll have to bring that up to the National Alliance of Railroads, which sure sounds like a lobbying group to me.

God, this has got to be the driest, most technocratic evil plot ever. Where’s a good doomsday device when you need one? (This book may or may not include a doomsday device).

Take off the fedora Jack, you look like one of the characters.

These guys and their sinister euphemisms now turn to the real problem — gridlock in Washington. They want to see these policies acted on fast, while there’s still time, but a good man is hard to find in D.C.  Jim says he has a few friends he could talk to. Orren steeples his fingers like Mr. Burns and goes, “Yes, yes, friendship. Friendships are excellent. And important. Don’t you agree, Larkin?”

Larkin has gotten increasingly uncomfortable with these sketchballs who do nothing but shit-talk his friend and plot Hank’s destruction. He sort of understands, seemingly subconsciously, that he’s under pressure to join a cabal of pathetic entitled losers who disguise their whining as high-minded rhetoric. But the rhetoric is so high-minded! And agreeable! Oh, how agreeable. So agreeable that Larkin agrees to work with them, because he’s a pussy. Hank would have kicked both these guys in the nuts by now.

With Larkin (un)officially on board this attempt to coordinate their combined corporate powers for the manipulation of government policy, the subtextual conspiracy portion of the evening is over and Jim asks Orren how was his recent trip to Mexico to visit the San Sebastian mines. And Orren is like, “Mexico’s beautiful.  Saw the mines and, uh, I assume things are going well. They seemed really busy. I didn’t see any copper myself, but there were like mine carts and stuff. Helmets. You know the drill.”

"Yep, that sure is a mine all right." -Orren Boyle

This all makes Orren come off like a useless windbag so Jim has to throw him a softball. Does he think there’s any truth to the rumors that Mexico will nationalize the railroads there? Orren blusters, “Oh definitely not, there’s no way that could happen.”

But they’re not confident men, these two, and they may realize their hypocrisy here. Even if they don’t, talking actual business makes them feel insecure. So now that Jim’s accidentally made Orren look the fool, Orren has to get in a dig back at Jim. He mentions ever so innocently that while he was south of the border he noticed Jim’s Mexico line runs just one busted old train once a day. Jim knows exactly jack about all this, so he uses the same excuses as Orren about how everybody’s undersupplied and underfunded, etc. Not his fault! It was just that one day, really! Orren totally understands.

Still, now Jim is embarrassed, and he gets real quiet and distracted and things are getting awkward until Larkin takes the opening to get the fuck out of there and is all, “Weeellp, gotta go!”

Everyone takes the cue and gets up to leave. Taggart turns to Wesley Mouch (remember him?) and tells Mouch he likes him, because Mouch keeps his mouth shut except when he’s agreeing with someone (which he’s been doing occasionally throughout the entire conversation). Wesley Mouch agrees that this is what Wesley Mouch does, but Wesley Mouch certainly does not say that part out loud. He well knows he was the intended audience for all the political insinuations, because Wesley Mouch, it turns out, is a registered lobbyist. And even though Hank Rearden probably doesn’t know it, because he hates dealing with that part of his business, Wesley Mouch is his registered lobbyist.  Oh, what tangled webs…

NEXT: Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom cont’d, “In Which Everyone is Sad”

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1:2 The Chain, “Family Jewels”

PREVIOUSLY: Dagny Taggart is a badass.

Another Taggart train is barreling down the track, this time past a giant steampunk city of plants, mills, girders and smokestacks, all emitting a molten orange glow. This is the Rearden Steel complex. An economist on the train ponders what role the individual has left to play in our post-modern technological age. A journalist makes a note that Rearden puts his name on everything just like Donald Trump some huge douche.

A pillar of flame erupts somewhere in the metalworks, and what these guys on the train don’t know is that it’s Dagny Taggart’s first order of Rearden’s experimental alloy being manufactured. Hank Rearden himself watches from inside Steampunk City, his face ‘unyielding,’ ‘cruel,’ and ‘expressionless.’ Blonde, too. Ayn Rand clearly has a type, and that type is Aryan. This fascist motif seemed like dark satire at first, Ayn, but now you’re creeping me out.

Satisfied that things are going smoothly, Hank decides to take a leisurely stroll back to his estate and reflect on the ‘quiet and solemn’ sensation of seeing one’s life work fulfilled. He has, after all, pursued the realization of this dream for ten years, ever since he first envisioned an alloy that ‘would be to steel what steel had been to iron.’ He remembers

the days when the young scientists … waited for instructions like soldiers ready for a hopeless battle, having exhausted their ingenuity, still willing, but silent, with the unspoken sentence hanging the air: “Mr. Rearden it can’t be done.”

Looks like he’s got some of that reality distortion field action going.

His recollections drift even further back in time, to when he first opened Rearden Steel here in rural Pennsylvania even though everyone called him a fool for investing in a state that industry and manufacturing had left long ago, leaving only an impoverished rust belt in their wake. Okay Rand, you get some prophetic brownie points this week. Credit where it’s due.

Right, Rearden is reveling in this epic catharsis, feeling at peak charisma, knowing that he is The Fuckin’ Man right now, and wishing there was someone around to bask in it with him.

For sale in real life at libertybracelet.com. Proceeds go to Ron Paul 2012

He fingers a bracelet that he had custom-made out of the first batch of Rearden Metal. It’s for his wife, but he realizes that the person he always imagined giving this bracelet to is still his wife in an abstract, ideal sense, and not Lillian, the actual living and breathing wife waiting for him at home. That’s a downer.

Rearden arrives at his house — decidedly less impressive than Steampunk City, with ‘the cheerless look of a nudity not worth revealing.’ As he steps through the front door his testicles magically teleport out of his scrotum and into a jar on the mantle above the fireplace, around which his wife, mother, brother and a family friend are having some kind of high-falutin’ chat about the state of the world today.

Lillian is wrapping up a thought about how all modern ‘men of culture’ find engineering boring when they all notice Hank and immediately start giving him a guilt trip for being a workaholic and never spending time with them. His desire to announce the triumph of his will (Ayn, seriously, take it down a notch) is immediately taken down a notch, because these people totally Don’t Get It.

Count it.

First off, his mother is a terrible, undermining harpy. She’s like Livia Soprano (Pop Culture Character Substitution of the Week #1). Just miserable. Meanwhile, he and his wife have this toxic passive-aggressive thing going on. He feels like she doesn’t understand him and she feels totally neglected by his obsession with his work. They are both right (see next picture).

Their dynamic is demonstrated as follows: First, Lillian tries to catch Hank for not remembering the date of their anniversary, the night of which she wants to host a big party. That’s three months away so maybe, she’s hoping, she can get some time with her husband at least penciled in on the schedule. He agrees. Begrudgingly.

#2

Then he tries to bridge the gap by presenting her with the bracelet, but she reacts as if he were a toddler presenting her with a macaroni and glitter Picasso. “Oh look, that’s so… nice.” His borderline personality mother calls him conceited and berates him for not buying his wife diamonds like a real man. Christ, this woman. At this point he sits down by the fire with them, perhaps to feel closer to his severed cojones. But no, he is withdrawn and exhausted now.

The family friend, Larkin, leans over for an aside. “Listen, Hank, I’m not one of those haters. I think your new alloy is awesome and could definitely change the world. Which is why you need to be careful,” says Larkin. Now it’s Rearden who Doesn’t Get It. “A lot of people don’t like you,” Larkin explains. “They could try and take you down. Through the press, for example. You should think about getting a PR department.” Rearden is old school and would rather let his work speak for itself. “Well who’s your lobbying firm?” Larkin presses (the specific phrase is ‘your man in Washington’), and Rearden just shrugs. He’s got one but he doesn’t even know the name. “Not good enough, Hank. Get in this lobbying game, for real. It’s super-important. Way of the future, okay? Watch your back.” Hank laments that lobbyists are all scumbags and he doesn’t like hiring scumbags for anything, but Larkin just shrugs with a “Hey, that’s the way of the world. Who is John Galt?”

This flippant attitude about cultural decline kind of pisses Rearden off for reasons he can’t articulate, and he starts chewing over his emotionally distressing relationship with his unbearable family. They’re all needy and ungrateful, but he has so much boundless energy and creative ambition to spare it would be unjust not to share it, or at least the spoils of it, with his flesh and blood, right? Nonetheless, he can’t stop seeing them as neurotic arrested development cases. Or Arrested Development cases — his mother is clearly Lucille Bluth as well as Livia Soprano, and his good-for-nothing brother has enjoyed a costly and fruitless college education on Hank’s tab just like Buster.

#3.

Said brother now hits Hank up for ten grand for a charity event he’s involved with, and Rearden goes along with it as if it were in the celebratory spirit of the evening, even though any spirits left in the evening at this point are bad wines turned to vinegar. Even if nobody says it everybody feels it, because they immediately go back to sniping at each other over their inferiority complexes as soon as Buster gets a yes out of Hank.

The evening winds to a close as Lillian puts a button on the conversation and sums up everyone’s tangled feelings towards their stoic benefactor by demonstrating her new bracelet to everyone as ‘the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.’ Look Lillian, I know your marriage is a soul-crushing disappointment, but the guy is in the room. Anyway, who’s in the mood for champagne?

NEXT: Chapter 3, part 1 — Not-So-Super Villains

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1:1 The Theme cont’d, “Enter the Protagonist”

PREVIOUSLY: Jim Taggart totally sucks. Eddie Willers is the book’s requisite Everyman. But who is John Galt???

A Taggart train chugs through the night on its way to the Taggart terminal in New York. Resting anonymously in one of the coach cars is a stark woman in sharp clothes, explicitly ‘unfeminine’ aside from her ‘elegant’ legs. She stares out the window, a musical motif caught in her head.  She is Dagny Taggart — James’ sister and the VP of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental. Let’s watch her now in her natural habitat, as Rand establishes her characteristic ruthless efficiency with characteristic ruthless efficiency.

from fleurdeguerre's Flickr stream

Well actually she’s mostly just sitting there, passive, which is to say uncharacteristically. But the song she’s hearing is a triumphant, bombastic piece with a melody of great ‘violence and magnificent intensity,’  so that at least fits the profile. It reads as a pretty Wagnerian tune, though Dagny is sure it was composed by some guy named Halley, and it is The Theme of the chapter’s title. She’s so into it that she’s letting go of control for once in her life and allowing her mind to wander.

Just as Dagny’s imagining herself running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum like Rocky, she realizes it’s the brakeman at the end of the car (who is blonde with apparently Germanic tastes, just like Eddie) who’s whistling this badass hype music… and she’s actually never heard it before. She asks him if that isn’t a Halley piece and he’s like, “Sure is, Concerto No. 5.” And she’s like, “But he only wrote four,” and he’s like, “Oh shit, I mean, yeah, of course there’s no Fifth. Nevermind.” You can tell he totally digs that she’s into the same bands he is, but it can never be, because he has already said too much.

Dagny snaps out of her next doze to find the train has stopped in the middle of nowhere. Oh she is pissed, because she’s on a very tight schedule to tear her brother a new asshole. But whoever stopped the train will have to do for now so she marches out of the car and right to the front of the great locomotive.

A gaggle of crew and passengers are standing around a red signal-light with their thumbs up their ass. Dagny slides authoritatively into a low-angle hero shot as she takes charge of this sad display of ineptitude. She commands the crew to switch tracks and get moving. The engineer in turn demands to know who this lady thinks she is, and she goes, “I’m Dagny Taggart” as if she just casually whipped her dick out, and everybody gasps and congratulates her for how she keeps it real by travelling coach. Golf clap! Dagny heads back to her car, where the brakeman of the mysterious Halley Theme eyes her, impressed.

Smash cut to the train pulling into the station, and now Dagny is sitting sleek and executive-like in her brother’s sleek executive office, telling him what’s what. Eddie is in the corner taking notes because he’s her pet dog personal aide.

Dagny takes a machete to James’ equivocating bullshit, brusquely informing him that not only will she be renovating the Rio Norte line to Colorado but she will be doing so with a commercially untested new super-alloy invented by one Hank Rearden. James again prefers his old boys’ network, saying “Rearden’s an asshole and we already have contracts with my friends!” Dagny just points out that all his friends deliver bad products and on such delayed schedules that the contracts are expiring. Seems pretty cut and dry, but James can’t stop harping on how Rearden is a miserable jerk just like Ellis Wyatt, the up-and-coming oil man who is the reason they must fix the line. Dagny ponders the following:

If she were insane she would conclude that her brother hated to deal with Rearden because Rearden did his job with superlative efficiency; but she would not conclude it, because she thought that such a feeling was not within the humanly possible.

Really, though? I kind of think she wouldn’t conclude it because if it weren’t for emotional obtuseness and refusal of parties to communicate, this book would be about 40 pages long.  I mean, come on, Dagny thinks irrational jealousy and resentment of others’ success aren’t within the humanly possible? Has Dagny ever met a human? Emotional obtuseness!

Actually, James takes this very moment to accuse Dagny of lacking ‘the human element,’ and she doesn’t disagree. Instead she talks some shit about James’ Mexican railroad investment, warning that the Mexican government is totally going to nationalize it. James once again defends his limp strategies and general cowardly manner by lashing out at Dagny for being a robotic ice queen who’s ‘never felt anything at all.’ Dagny gets a weary thousand-yard stare on and says he’s right.

After all, Dagny may be an executive-class business woman ahead of her time, but you can’t have it all, can you? Maybe she’s had to give up on love? Like many driven career women today, Dagny worries that she may never have the time to find that special someone who is both the founder of an articulate, comprehensive life philosophy and good in bed. Sorry Dags; it’s lonely at the top.

by HappyNane at deviantART

Wow, things got a little bit emo there for a minute. Luckily Dagny leaves James’ office and all its negative vibes, with faithful sidekick Eddie by her side to inform her she has a meeting with some middle manager named Kellogg. Dagny’s pleased to hear it because she likes the cut of that guy’s jib and she wants to promote him. But it turns out he booked the meeting in order to resign.

“The hell?” Dagny inquires, and he won’t really explain himself. He likes his job, he’s not taking another job, he has no beef with her. He’s just going to leave mysteriously, forever, as a matter of some principle he won’t name. Refusal of parties to communicate! Anyway he wanted to “tell” her this first, because he respects her. Dagny feels frustrated and defeated, which she isn’t used to and doesn’t like, but Kellogg can only depart with a smile of ‘secret amusement, and heartbreak, and an infinite bitterness’ as he asks ‘Who is John Galt?’

Frankly, with all these minor characters namedropping him all the time I’m shocked everybody doesn’t already know.

NEXT: Chapter 2 — Family Jewels

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Food For Thought #1: The Randverse Pop Culture Rubric

Basically the same.

Food for Thought is an ongoing series of posts that will react to the book earnestly, foregoing the snark of the chapter summaries. Since this is posting alongside the first of those summaries, consider it an aperitif. We’ll start light and wade into the novel’s heavier issues as the story develops.

One of the distinctive features of doing this as a weekly blog is the serialization of the narrative over many months. And with thirty chapters it wouldn’t be that hard to reconfigure the book into 10 episodes of TV (as opposed to, say, a half-baked feature film trilogy) much like the Game of Thrones adaptation.

So to tease some of the book’s conceptual potency for the skeptics, I’m going to quickly stack Atlas up against three television serials whose excellence is widely agreed upon.

LOST Okay, I know the overall quality of Lost is still disputed by those who don’t like the ending, but in some ways that makes it all the more apt a comparison. And besides that, don’t listen to the haters — Lost hit way too many home runs to be cast away for pulling a Casey at the Bat in the bottom of the ninth. In fact, I dropped a Lost reference in the very first paragraph of the recaps, comparing John Galt to Jacob, the God-like figure of The Others’ mysterious religion.

Like Jacob, Galt is a hands-off puppetmaster who hovers ominously over the lives of all the other characters. And to take it even further, Galt’s various undercover agents (keep an eye out for them in the recaps) are exactly like the vast network of Others embedded in the off-Island world, withholding information about Galt/Jacob’s secret realm and protecting that realm while simultaneously recruiting potential candidates to go there.

MAD MEN This is probably the most obvious point of comparison, since characters on Mad Men have specifically cited Atlas Shrugged  and even told Don Draper he is a Randian Übermensch. Also, both works fetishize the aesthetics of an earlier America.

But in a broader sense the two are alike in observing a world on the brink of immense change and upheaval, evaluating the people in that world by whether they live by values that will thrive in the future or get mired in ways of thinking that are doomed to the dustbin of history.

The vital distinction between these visions is that Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner has humanistic empathy for his characters, who, much like real people, struggle to be true to their best selves, to even know themselves at all (and this is the existential condition portrayed by Lost too).

In Atlas Shrugged however, Ayn Rand sketches only Manichean avatars of flawless valor or abject cowardice. Opportunities for nuance and depth are there in many places, but Rand lets them pass her by out of some bizarre disdain for human feelings. Whenever the novel’s heroes experience emotions, they refuse to express them, or are uncomfortable having them, all while the narrator insists they aren’t actually feeling anything at all, and certainly not the emotions said narrator is describing at length. It robs the piece of artistry, and it’s a self-inflicted wound. As Scott Tobias puts it in his AV Club review of the derided Atlas film, “Its ideas are squandered by aesthetics.”

THE WIRE Often called the Best. Show. Ever. by its fans, The Wire focuses on a world sliding inevitably down a slope of corruption and decay where redemption is only available on an individual level and institutional reform is hopeless. So the Randverse, basically. But The Wire prizes realism and appeals to many people whose politics are far to the right of David Simon’s, whereas Rand venerates her ideals alone and regards other worldviews with contempt, leaving only her ideological cohorts to support her work (excepting yours truly).

The Wire‘s ideas are enhanced by its aesthetics because it pays enormous attention to the complicating details of life, and because it treats all of its characters as distinct individuals, just ones who can never truly escape society’s tangled web of irreconcilable incentives. Not even radical individualists like Omar Little are islands unto themselves. The game is the game, always.

So in The Wire, while some in power are corrupt and some aren’t, all powerful people are inevitably led by their rational self-interest to make decisions which harm other members of society in ways nobody could have anticipated and which only the viewing audience has all the necessary perspectives to appreciate. The end result is that even though The Wire and Atlas share a bird’s eye vision of society, The Wire‘s eyesight approaches a keen 20/20 while Atlas’ is woefully myopic.

But obviously I think the book is still worth something or this blog wouldn’t exist. I just think its primary virtue is vast unfulfilled potential. And the only way to tap that potential is to discard Rand’s moral absolutism and focus on the complicating details that she tries so hard to abolish.  Doing that is ultimately what this blog is for.

Basically, just imagine that Atlas was adapted into a one-and-done season of TV, reworked as progressive tragedy, produced by David Simon, shot by the Mad Men team, and working from a script by Damon Lindelof (with George Pelecanos ghostwriting the climax). Considered from the right perspective, it’s a story that could blow your goddamn mind.

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